I will certainly not forget the start of the week in a hurry. During my decade-long career as an investigative journalist for The Observer, I had my fair share of hairy moments, but last Monday now ranks right up there with the most hirsute of them.
Since joining the Channel 4 Dispatches team in April, I had been working on two films in parallel. Today was transmission date for the first: The Olympics Cash Machine. And we had clearly hit a nerve.
- June 12, 2018
- October 28, 2016
- November 4, 2013
In the course of our investigation, we had uncovered an extraordinary Whitehall memo to Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, which suggested she had been personally warned about the spiralling Olympic costs long before she told Parliament earlier this year.
We had also discovered that Lord Sebastian Coe, who chairs Locog, the committee organising the London 2012 Olympic Games, had been busy developing his private commercial interests through a company he had set up just a few weeks after London’s bid victory, with the help of a tax exile living in Monaco.
We would be alleging that Lord Coe had raised £1m from investors for his venture and was benefiting from his heightened Olympic status.
As those in TV know, as well as potential libel issues to contend with, there are stringent Ofcom regulations designed to ensure fairness and balance. Anybody subject to an allegation has to be given a reasonable opportunity for a right to reply.
By Monday morning, it seemed we were being attacked from all sides – a fact compounded by the general atmosphere of television being in the dock. Lord Coe had hired heavyweight libel lawyer firm Carter Ruck, and it had been threatening us with all manner of retributions if we put one step wrong.
We also had legal warnings from two other parties we were mentioning in the film, including Olympic triple jump champion Jonathan Edwards. Behind the scenes, my new bosses at Channel 4 were coming under considerable political pressure – particularly after reports in the Sunday papers second-guessing what we were planning to broadcast.
At 8.30am on Monday, the Dispatches team gathered at Channel 4 for a viewing of the film. Many of us had been working right through the weekend – day and night – to get the programme to this stage.
As well as trying to finalise the script, we were busy answering myriad press and legal queries. But there was still a lot to do. Every little new edit takes a lot of time. I had to keep popping into the voiceover booth to amend small bits of commentary and read the rights-of-reply.
Most of the day, I was stuck in the edit suite down in Channel 4’s basement, but on one of my rare outings upstairs, a senior channel executive told me he had not known such political pressure put on a programme for a very long time.
Amid the maelstrom, Kevin Sutcliffe, deputy head of Channel 4’s news and current affairs, and the man in charge of the programme, seemed remarkably calm. He was an invaluable bulwark against the forces railing against us.
At about 6.45pm, Kevin and I sat in a quiet room and went through the script one more time, checking every detail. Back in the edit suite, there was still one more image that needed changing. Finally at 7.40pm, 20 minutes before the programme was due to be broadcast, the film was finished. Talk about cutting it fine.
At 8pm, I stood outside Channel 4, peering through its glass-fronted reception at the large TV screens to watch the programme start, and then returned to the edit suite and watched the film through with the team. As the end credits came up, we opened a couple of beers before heading home to see our families for the first time in a week.
On Tuesday, there wasn’t much in the papers about the Olympics programme, considering what had been written before it was broadcast. I was told by one journalist that there had been lots of outside pressure put on newspapers too.
The next day, I had to go into Channel 4 to discuss my next film, Unholy War. We’ve been investigating the plight of the 3,000 British Muslims who had left Islam and converted to Christianity.
On the train, I saw The Guardian’s Digger column was reporting that neither Coe nor his committee were going to take any action against the programme. This was, of course, a relief, but we were confident of our story and ready to fight whatever was thrown at us.
On Friday, it was an early start at a studio in Covent Garden to record the voiceover for Unholy War. One thing I have learnt in my short TV career is a great new set of jargon. My favourite phrase so far is ‘gash voice”. Apparently, this is the guide commentary that has been temporarily put on the film, which normally consists of the producer reading the script.
Now it was my turn. I sip some water and wait for the red cue light to go on. Then, in my clearest voice, I begin: ‘Tonight on Dispatches, Christians under attack.”
I sense another busy week ahead.